Later this year, an ambitious new Earth-monitoring satellite will launch into a polar orbit around our planet. The new satellite—called JPSS-1—is a collaboration between NASA and NOAA. It is part of a mission called the Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS.
With seven Earth-sized planets that could harbor liquid water on their rocky, solid surfaces, the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system might feel familiar. Yet the system, recently studied by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, is unmistakably alien: compact enough to fit inside Mercury’s orbit, and surrounds an ultra-cool dwarf star—not much bigger than Jupiter and much cooler than the sun.
On August 21, 2017, North Americans will enjoy a rare treat: The first total solar eclipse visible from the continent since 1979. The sky will darken and the temperature will drop, in one of the most dramatic cosmic events on Earth. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime show indeed. But it will also be an opportunity to do some science.
About 250 miles overhead, a satellite the size of a loaf of bread flies in orbit. It’s one of hundreds of so-called CubeSats—spacecraft that come in relatively inexpensive and compact packages—that have launched over the years. So far, most CubeSats have been commercial satellites, student projects, or technology demonstrations. But this one, dubbed MinXSS (“minks”) is NASA’s first CubeSat with a bona fide science mission.
Boasting intricate patterns and translucent colors, planetary nebulae are among the most beautiful sights in the universe. How they got their shapes is complicated, but astronomers think they’ve solved part of the mystery—with giant blobs of plasma shooting through space at half a million miles per hour.
Just 25 years ago, scientists didn’t know if any stars—other than our own sun, of course—had planets orbiting around them. Yet they knew with certainty that gravity from massive planets caused the sun to move around our solar system’s center of mass. Therefore, they reasoned that other stars would have periodic changes to their motions if they, too, had planets.
There is this great idea that if you look hard enough and long enough at any region of space, your line of sight will eventually run into a luminous object: a star, a galaxy or a cluster of galaxies. In reality, the universe is finite in age, so this isn’t quite the case. There are objects that emit light from the past 13.7 billion years—99 percent of the age of the universe—but none before that. Even in theory, there are no stars or galaxies to see beyond that time, as light is limited by the amount of time it has to travel.
When the advent of large telescopes brought us the discoveries of Uranus and then Neptune, they also brought the great hope of a Solar System even richer in terms of large, massive worlds. While the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt were each found to possess a large number of substantial icy-and-rocky worlds, none of them approached even Earth in size or mass, much less the true giant worlds. Meanwhile, all-sky infrared surveys, sensitive to red dwarfs, brown dwarfs and Jupiter-mass gas giants, were unable to detect anything new that was closer than Proxima Centauri. At the same time, Kepler taught us that super-Earths, planets between Earth and Neptune in size, were the galaxy’s most common, despite our Solar System having none.
As Earth speeds along in its annual journey around the Sun, it consistently overtakes the slower-orbiting outer planets, while the inner worlds catch up to and pass Earth periodically. Sometime after an outer world—particularly a slow-moving gas giant—gets passed by Earth, it appears to migrate closer and closer to the Sun, eventually appearing to slip behind it from our perspective. If you’ve been watching Jupiter this year, it’s been doing exactly that, moving consistently from east to west and closer to the Sun ever since May 9th.